We Don't All Have to Be Workaholics

Are you reading this at work?

If so, are you sneak-reading it, keeping open a passel of other files that can hide this one at a click? Or not, because your job doesn't involve desks, or because it lets you stay home alone in pajamas, nibbling Cheezits? Or do you have no job because you can't find one or don't need one or don't want one, and you've got another plan?

In a country that hammered its way to world-power status while singing about hauling barges and working on the railroad, what we do with our live-long days is now, for most Americans, more a matter of choice than ever before. Technically, we're free. And in droves we opt out, slack off, shuffle back to our moms' basements. Sooner or later we become wage slaves. Or we don't. And watching clouds sail over the skatepark, or updating that spreadsheet with the latest sales figures, we ask ourselves whether "work" and "ethic" even belong in the same sentence anymore.

Tom Lutz probes 400 years' worth of changing attitudes toward work in "Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2006). A blues keyboardist and screenwriter who heads a University of California M.F.A. program, Lutz admits that he's conflicted: "My life of sloth blends imperceptibly into my pathological flip side, my workaholism." He and his friends are "all lazy imposters, and we are all workaholic slaves." He was just as torn when, as a boomer rebel at a '70s commune, he loved outwitting The Man yet wondered why he was, basically, breaking rocks in the hot sun.

In tracing the anti-career careers of superstar literary slackers -- Melville, Hawthorne, Wordsworth, Wilde, Whitman, Stevenson, Keats, Kerouac -- Lutz stacks the deck. Writers, especially ones we've heard of, hardly comprise a random sampling of any era's slacker sector. Because they are those select few with sufficient skill, schooling and in many cases rich relatives to fuel dreamy descriptions of their chosen lifestyle, theirs are the voices we hear. (Not to mention the fact that writing is one of those rare forms of work that pretty much require sporadic idle spans.) And theirs are the voices dominating this book, with shout-outs from songwriters (such as Harry McClintock, who penned "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum"), scholars (such as Barbara Ehrenreich) and celebs such as Karl Marx's Cuban-born anarchist son-in-law Paul Lafargue, fond of "the free and lazy American" who "prefers a thousand deaths to the bovine life of the French peasant."

But failed-businessman Lafargue lived on handouts from Marx and Engels. Wordsworth lived on an inheritance. Such realities sugar this book with a certain built-in elitism. Professors are funny that way.

But it's fun to fantasize with Lutz about utopias -- dreamed up by the IWW in 1933, by bestselling 19th-century novelists such as Edward Bellamy and William Dean Howells, by early 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell -- which feature four-hour workdays. Or three hours. Two and two-thirds. Even ten-minute workdays, in Bellamy's book "Looking Backward." Such shifts would imbue labor with meaning "not because labor is good," Russell reasoned, "but because leisure is good." And "since men will not be tired in their spare time," he reasoned, they'll spend it wisely.

Uh huh.

Off-hours. On-hours. The sad fact is that for only the luckiest few, both types are equally appealing. I Love My Job is a joke printed on coffee mugs. Granted, at the far end of the spectrum some workers and would-be workers are strapped beyond the realm of jokes or choice or fantasy. But how the rest of us divvy up our days, and what we spend them doing, comes down to a series of equations, arithmetical and ethical. Their variables include skill and will, time and money. If work is hell, then how much is your freedom worth? Sacrifices seem less sacrificial if every skipped mocchiato, every thrift-shop shirt, buys you another Tuesday all your own.

The slacker is "a deeply ironic figure," Lutz muses before analyzing beggars and beachcombers, ramblers and rebels, Anna Nicole Smith and Ferris Bueller. Synonyms for slacking, he asserts, "could be used as insults or adopted proudly as a protest." Bums are loathed. Loafers are loved. Yet he sidesteps a crucial duel in this arena. Sure, some Calvinists scorn slackers on principle, simply because they don't work. Predictably, Lutz rushes to skewer such tight-asses, quoting John Ashcroft's 1995 screed against "welfare queens," then cherrypicking web postings in which boneheads and bigots rail against "these parasites," against "black teenage girls produc[ing] baby after baby so they can get AFDC." The voices of anyone actually receiving welfare are virtually absent from this book. Pummeling the "anti-welfare right," Lutz appears unwilling to accept that anyone but a bloody-fanged Republican might resent the idea of having to support slackers. Yet by not working, at least some nonworkers make workers work harder. So an ethical slacker, you might say, is one who never enslaves anyone else.

If the estimates at jobstar.org are to be believed, Lutz earns in the high six figures for his post at UC Riverside, and that's not counting his book contracts or fees for the screenplays he sells. Naturally he admits nursing a "twisted relation to work." Such a far cry from the steel-hard certitude of anarchist attorney Bob Black, whom Lutz does not mention but whose 1985 essay "The Abolition of Work" calls employment the source of nearly all misery: "Almost any evil you'd care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work," Black lamented. "In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working. That doesn't mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play."

By comparison, Lutz's apparent admirations slither like mercury. One minute he's praising the IWW and strikers, the next he's hailing hoboes. Sorry for those who feel "incarcerated by their work," picturing himself as "imprisoned by the work ethic," he proclaims that every lounger and "homeless wanderer" is a potent "symbol of resistance." Almost in the same breath he mourns the Haymarket martyrs. But aren't shipbuilders, meatcutters and factory workers the very entity that these carefree symbols of resistance are resisting?

But that's professors for you. They always want to have it both ways.

So do those icons whom academics idealize: intellectuals such as Jack Kerouac -- around whose self-destructive narrative Lutz cartwheels with a dizzy mix of scorn and awe -- who quit college to play at being laborers. They make a show of shunning the gray flannel suits and ivory-tower offices to which their IQs and their parents' dreams would whisk them, then don deckhand garb and gut steers. Kerouac dubbed himself and his fellow beats fellaheen: peasants and grunts. But in a way that's dilettantish, stuck somewhere between actually ennobling labor and snickering Screw you, Dad, dig my toolbelt.

The earlier idlers in this book loafed for art's sake. Wordsworth spun pastorales from the "voluptuous indolence" of his lakeside hikes. "Moby Dick" drew on Melville's own memories of "what a delightful, lazy, languid time we had" when he was a South Seas sailor, lounging with crewmates who "seemed under the influence of a narcotic." But 20th-century slacking grew increasingly political. Lutz views it as a form of mourning, of alienation in extremis, of generations chanting: "Whatever we do leads to the wasteland." Work itself became the enemy.

It's ironic, because, as that last century sped past its midmark, labor laws and anti-discrimination laws and open education combined to make work in America less of a lethal grind than ever before. But in 1971, Abbie Hoffman was advising his fans to subvert the status quo by burgling, by shoplifting and by crashing bar mitzvahs to steal the food. Whether such tactics "are legal or illegal is irrelevant," Hoffman wrote in "Steal This Book." But "to not steal from the institutions of the Pig Empire is," he reasoned, "immoral." Hoffman approved only of jobs at which workers could filch money or pilfer supplies.

But this just yields another equation. In such troubled times, shouldn't those of us who can choose our work choose work that, at worst, doesn't harm anyone and, at best, makes the world a better place, even by a teensy bit? In the dismantling of empires, it's hard to know whether some seeming act of insurrection, that proud screw-you, might disable a perfectly nice human being somewhere down the line.

Still, using your job to shatter the system is an idea with legs. In 1981, San Francisco temp-workers launched the Processed World 'zine, whose covers -- fashioned, like the rest of PW, from "donated" office supplies -- demanded: "Are you doing the processing ... or are you being processed?" Corporate economist/psycholoanalyst Corinne Maier's book "Bonjour Laziness" (Vintage, 2006) was a bestseller two years ago in France. "Business is not humanistic," Maier complains, promising that her book "will help you take advantage of the firm you work for." She proffers pointers: keep drawing your salary but disengage. Attend meetings but spurt empty doublespeak. Spin your wheels. "What you do is ultimately pointless," Maier whispers, so do nothing. "Avoid all change." So -- stay in your chains, slaves, but celebrate? Spend your days spiking paralytic boredom with the acid thrill of knowing that, heehee, you're getting paid for it? This is a manifesto that could almost only have been born in France, whose rigid labor laws spread panic throughout the populace and spawn riots. Life among those laws would just siphon away the entrepreneurial spirit that might spur an American who hates her job to simply quit it and create a startup of her own.

Or at least slack off the right way, loving those Cheezits, not wearing stockings or a suit, feeling free.

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